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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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From Pity to Pride: Growing Up Deaf in the Old South

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ASL’s linguistic use of space, coupled with the grammatical use of dramatic facial expression, often upset hearing people for reasons other than concern about learning English. The physical language of ASL attracted other people’s attention and was sometimes seen as source of embarrassment for Deaf children’s hearing companions. For example, despite her newfound pride in her son, Virginia Trist was not entirely comfortable with what she sometimes saw as the spectacle of Jefferson’s life in the Deaf community. When she ran into a group of pupils including her son on a field trip to the Masonic Hall to see a hydro-oxygen microscope, she was immediately happy to see them. But when they exited the Hall into the streets of Philadelphia with “many . . . waves of hands from the band of mutes,” she was relieved that it was “not a fashionable hour or I should have felt rather awkward heading this procession attracting the notice of the passerbys.”20

Despite the frequently patronizing attitudes of hearing advocates of state schools for the Deaf, the young pupils and the adult Deaf staff quickly formed a community that did not always share the goals of hearing educators. No matter what language was taught in the classroom, whether it was speech or writing or English-order sign, American Sign Language was almost certainly the language of the dormitory and the playground. Although pupils spent long hours in the classrooms trying to perfect their written English skills, they spent many more hours—after class, on weekends, during summers—with their peers. They shared rooms in the dormitories, studied together in the evenings, ate together in the dining halls—all without the limiting classroom rule to use some form of English. American Sign Language was “the vernacular of the deaf and dumb”: it allowed them “the full measure of social enjoyment.” Sign was shared from Deaf staff to pupils, from older pupils to younger, and from pupils who grew up in homes where ASL was used to pupils who were the only Deaf people in their families.21

Exclusive reliance on signed communication could have the effect of marginalizing the Deaf community. Educators and hearing parents wanted their Deaf children to learn English sufficiently so they could work within the hearing world, passing notes with their hearing peers. A knowledge of English would prepare Deaf people “for transacting business with all their countrymen” in the “vernacular language of their country.” Educators also wanted to facilitate “social intercourse” with hearing people. The use of American Sign Language, many hearing people believed, simply meant that Deaf people were wasting their time and perhaps even doing damage: they were learning to think in a language other than English. On top of that, American Sign Language facilitated social intercourse with other Deaf people, not with the hearing world. Hearing families feared that American Sign Language would remove their Deaf children from the family circle. Instead of identifying with hearing people with whom they could not easily communicate, Deaf people formed more significant bonds with people unrelated to them by blood: other Deaf people, whether or not they were from families of the same social classes, the same political perspectives, or even the same region of the country.22

American Sign Language encouraged the development of a separate culture for American Deaf people. Members of the culture did not feel that English was their native language. It was a language forced upon them by an often oppressive educational system. Deaf people usually struggled to master it, while their hearing counterparts easily absorbed its basics. ASL did not present these difficulties. It was a language wholly accessible to Deaf people. It was the language of the Deaf community throughout the United States. Camaraderie with other people using a signed language offered Deaf people an escape from the struggles their deafness caused in hearing America. American Sign Language was the grammar of liberation.


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